Making remote work work

Today's healthcare leaders face vast uncertainty and a multitude of complex questions that can feel impossible to answer. These uncertainties include the labor market, the future of remote work, the organization's infrastructure and technology, the role of automation — and much more.

During a roundtable sponsored by Xtend Healthcare at Becker's Hospital Review's 12th Annual Meeting, Xtend president and CEO Mike Morris and executive vice president Doug Polasky led a participant-driven discussion about the state of the non-clinical healthcare workforce.

Five key takeaways:

  1. As more work becomes virtual, most organizations have maintained their productivity. After the almost immediate surge to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, many healthcare organizations are deciding to keep significant portions of their workforce working from home. Or, they are using terms like "permanent flex virtual" or "permanent virtual" for employees who only come into a physical workplace as needed. Many employees prefer this arrangement and organizations are content with it as long as productivity is maintained.
  2. Remote work extends an employer's geographic reach. Organizations note that by hiring remote workers, they are able to draw talent from a wider area. But, there are trade-offs. A health system in a high-wage urban area can look to reduce its expenses by hiring from another region. On the flip side, the nationwide competition for top talent can hurt a health system that once had its pick of the local workforce. Also, if an employee is feeling disconnected when working remotely, the risk of losing that employee increases. 

Some organizations see an opportunity to access specialized talent through outsourcing or contracting, instead of bringing on an additional employee. An additional complexity for some employers is grappling with the tax implications of having employees in additional states. 

  1. When working virtually, organizations must confront concerns about lack of collaboration and mentoring. Roundtable participants expressed concern about the potential loss of mentoring and a "generational divide" as a result of remote work. Participants further worry about diminished "rub-off learning" and lack of water cooler interactions. 

Organizations are solving for this in different ways. Some organizations encourage people to come in from time to time, but this is not a solution for those hiring nationally. Participants recounted holding a range of different meetings: for teams, one-on-ones, virtual coffees and more. A number of participants emphasized the importance of using video as a way to see people and build relationships, and the need to overcome resistance to turning on the camera. One participant suggested searching online for ideas of fun activities to incorporate. 

  1. With the transition to remote work, managers' roles have changed significantly. Because many managers previously spent time enforcing rules that no longer exist, their work has been upended. A participant stressed the importance of investing time to learn to lead virtually. Work can't simply be a series of Zooms. As organizations strive to maintain engagement and collaboration, leaders need to act with intentionality and be sensitive to drawing out people in distinct ways. Another participant drew on his experience of finding new ways to incentivize creative problem solving by his team.
  2. Participants do not see automation as a ”cure all” for labor challenges. Workflow improvements based on automation may scare away some employees. But the primary hurdle to automation that participants described was that their "core software vendor does not have interfaces." Participants lamented that interoperability was not a priority for vendors. Automation and workflow enhancements hold great promise, but skilled workers are still needed and in short supply. 

Xtend recognizes that labor volatility is especially acute in healthcare, and welcomes the opportunity to hear these experiences from the marketplace to help them design their services.

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